As the dust has settled, it seems like Sunless Sea and Kentucky Route Zero might have pioneered a new genre. I’ve heard them called "road games," games where lonely travelers cross a weird, oppressive, tantalizing world, picking up half-stories and crooked anecdotes from other lost souls.
Johnnemann Nordhagen, lead designer of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and the co-founder of Fullbright, cites both of those games as influences, as well as Huckleberry Finn, On the Road, Easy Rider, or really anything that pays tribute to the immensity of the USA, and the uniquely American faith that deliverance might be waiting just a few states over.
You’re a weary, faceless wanderer with a knapsack on your shoulder, standing on a huge paper map of the continental United States. It’s the Great Depression, and in each township, metropolis, and hovel, you’ll find something new.
Like Sunless Sea the storytelling in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine happens in cut-away text boxes with a branching dialogue tree. Do you stop and listen to what the cock-eyed crow has to say? Do you bring a payload of booze to the local military base? Some of these stories are one-off tall tales, but Nordhagen tells me that there are 16 characters with 16 arcs that you’ll slowly uncover in your long journey across the continent.
These characters are all written by different authors—two being games writing luminaries Austin Walker and Leigh Alexander—and Nordhagen hopes dividing the workload between multiple people will give the narratives a multifaceted perspective on the grim folklore of the era.
"The central theme, and the title of the game, is all about finding this place, this spot where dreams come true," he says. "It’s about the American Dream, whether that’s attainable at all, who is excluded from it, all of that stuff. All the characters you meet are from different historical contexts in America. You’ll meet a hobo kid who was kicked out by his parents, a coal miner who was in a union and was involved in the mine wars in the early 20th century. A Navajo woman who was in the Long Walk of the Navajo. So they’re all people who are looking for America that was promised but never really existed."
What I like about Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is how it places some of those very real anguishes against a backdrop of vintage American mysticism—that real Paul Bunyan shit. The game opens with you losing a hand of cards against an anthropomorphic wolf in a murky, lantern-lit room, who subsequently condemns you to wander the country to gather the apologues of the common people. Things only get stranger from there.
It does pack a light survival mechanic—you need to feed and rest your traveler with the nickels you find on the road—but for the most part you’re walking, talking, and listening to a pitch-perfect hillbilly original score. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is out early next year, and I can’t wait to see more.